Iraq at Five: The Refugee Crisis

Kristele Younes
Senior Advocate, Refugees International
Thursday, March 20, 2008 2:00 PM

Refugees International senior advocate Kristele Younes, who recently returned from checking conditions in Syria ( click read her report), was online Thursday, March 20 at 2 p.m. ET to take questions about the people forced out of their homes by the conflict in Iraq and what needs to be done.

The transcript follows.

For the past two years, Younes has surveyed and advocated on behalf of displaced Iraqis in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Prior to that, she was a legal officer with the Coalition for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, worked with Medecins du Monde and the International Rescue Committee in Afghanistan, and worked on rule of law issues with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's human rights department in post-war Bosnia.


Kristele Younes: Hi everyone, this is Kristele -- I am very happy to be here today to answer your questions about displaced Iraqis.


Amman, Jordan: Kristele, what do you think of the French government's decision to welcome about 300 Chaldean Catholic Iraqi Refugees? Isn't it a bad sign of communitarianism policy from the country of the human rights?

Kristele Younes: We welcome any Western government's decision to resettle vulnerable Iraqis, as many are in need of international protection. We do believe -- and have stated many times -- that Iraqis can be at risk no matter their sectarian background. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees's office (UNHCR) uses 11 criteria to determine someone's vulnerability, and belonging to a religious minority is one of them. There are 10 others, including women at risk, victims of torture, etc. ... We certainly encourage resettlement countries to examine all cases submitted to them, and not only those of religious minorities.


New York: Hello. What is being done to assist urban internally displaced persons in Iraq?

Kristele Younes: The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR are the two leading international organizations assisting the internally displaced in Iraq. Thanks to a network of local organizations, they are able to distribute much-needed assistance to many. Others also have been very active -- the Iraqi Red Crescent, the International Committee of the Red Cross and local and international nongovernmental organizations. However, the needs are huge, and these organizations need the resources to improve their response. Also, it is essential we see the Iraqi government take a much stronger role in responding to the needs of its people.


Medford, Ore.: Jordan's Interior Minister announced Feb. 17 that Iraqis have two months to either leave or to register and pay half their fines. Iraqis are terrified by this. How many have left? Has Jordan announced whether those who cannot pay and do not leave will face arrest. Will they possibly face forced repatriation?

Kristele Younes: Since the Jordanian government's new measures, there hasn't been a larger flow of Iraqis leaving, which is good. UNHCR is working very hard to negotiate a solution with the government for those who do not come forward, or to find ways to cover the fines for those who cannot afford to pay them. Iraqis in Jordan are terrified of deportation, but it is worth noting that there have been very few cases of deportation recently, and that positive steps generally have been taken to ensure that it doesn't happen. What Iraqis in Jordan need most is increased international assistance to allow them to survive until they can return in safety and dignity.


Amman, Jordan.: I would like to know whether any of the EU member states have made any commitment to take in more Iraqi refugees for this year, especially from Jordan or Syria?

Kristele Younes: The United Kingdom has committed to admitting some of its former Iraqi employees who are in danger because of their links to the U.K. Other European countries, such as Sweden, have received significant numbers of asylum-seekers in the past year. UNHCR is working to try to increase resettlement numbers in Europe, especially for particularly vulnerable cases, such as individuals in dire need of medical treatment. It is essential that Europe, and the rest of the international community, increases the number of Iraqis it accepts.


Cherry Hill, N.J.: As you look at the tremendous need of Iraqis who are now refugees in Syria, and the burden they are placing on the Syrian infrastructure, what is your view of the Syrian government's response to the Iraq refugee crisis, in comparison to the U.S. contribution? Also, to what extent are the U.S. sanctions on Syria affecting the ability of the Damascus government to respond to the needs of these refugees?

Kristele Younes: Syria has been the most generous country to Iraqi refugees, by far. According to the Syrian Government, there are 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria. Syria has opened its public schools and hospitals to Iraqis, and is providing them with the most important thing of all -- safety.

The U.S.'s policy of nonengagement with Syria is having consequences on humanitarian assistance to Iraqis there. Refugees International has been calling for increased engagement, and for bilateral assistance to the region, as it is only governments that can tackle the crisis in its entirety. The U.N. can assist only the most vulnerable, and is not capable of building appropriate infrastructure. Whatever political role Syria is playing, we all need to acknowledge the positive humanitarian role it has played until now.


New York: Are you optimistic that the U.S. will meet its targeted goal of taking in 12,000 Iraqi refugees by September? Do you think they've made significant improvements in speeding up the processing of refugees, particularly in Syria?

Kristele Younes: Until now, the U.S. resettlement response has been poor. Thankfully, the State Department has now geared up, and is processing an increasing number of refugees every month. They believe they will meet their goal. We will see. But in any case, one must remember that 12,000 is a very small number, and that we expect the U.S. to do better next year, and to provide more assistance to the millions who will never make it our of the region. Resettlement is important, but only targets a selected few.


Arlington, Va.: Thank you for taking time to answer questions. I follow your work and it is among the best in the field. It seems clear to all observers that the displacement crisis is a major destabalizer in Iraq -- why do you think this fact rarely is mentioned in U.S. policy/strategy debates?

Kristele Younes: Thank you for your kind words.

I believe there has been a lot of denial about the humanitarian consequences of the war, and what they mean both for Iraq and for the region. Millions of displaced Iraqis are an embarrassing fact for some members of this administration, as they point to a failure until now to provide security to the country. Moreover, there has been a refusal to admit that the crisis is now regional -- not only from a humanitarian perspective but from a stability one as well. That millions of civilians have been left without assistance and hundreds of thousands of children are out of school only increases the potential instability for Iraq and the region. Until the U.S. government acknowledges that, the response will remain insufficient.


New York: Can you talk about the ethnic cleansing in Iraq of the ethnic and religious minorities? Is ethnic cleansing or genocide taking place? I have heard both terms used by various commentators...

Kristele Younes: In today's Iraq, everyone can be at risk. Refugees International has interviewed hundreds of displaced Iraqis -- from all denominations -- who fled their homes fearing for their lives. Sectarian cleansing has taken and continues to take place in many areas of Iraq, as Shias and Sunnis compete for control of neighborhoods and cities.

Minorities are at particular risk, because they have nowhere to go inside the country. Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and others do not have a governorate to call their own, or militias to protect them. As a result most of them have fled, and are now either in Northern Iraq or in the region. I was in Baghdad last month, and was told there were very few Christians left.


Washington: What are the options for Palestinians trapped in border areas and unable to enter Jordan/Syria? Aside from Chile and Brazil, do you know of other possibilities for resettlement?

Kristele Younes: Palestinians are perhaps the most vulnerable group in Iraq today, as they are not only targeted, but also stateless. Since 2003 they have faced persecution from both militias and the Iraqi government. There are now about 15,000 still living in Baghdad, while 2,000 more are stranded at the Syrian-Iraqi border. All live in desperate conditions, and fear for their lives.

Unfortunately, Palestinians always serve as political pawns -- both for countries in the region and for Western resettlement countries who refuse to touch them. For the Palestinians from Iraq, and without prejudice to their right to return, resettlement is currently the only viable option -- and Western countries have yet to step up to the task. Chile's and Brazil's generosity should serve as an example to all.


Denver: I would like to know why the Department of State keeps saying they've reached the 500 visas given to Iraqi interpreters when I know they haven't. I heard on the news that 12,000 Iraqis are going to be allowed in the states, up to the end of September. I think this would be the UNHCR, not the special immigrant visa applications. I think the State Department and our country are stalling and not letting the special immigrant visas Kennedy created work. I think this is what they do -- legislate just to make them look good and sit back and do nothing.

Kristele Younes: The Kennedy legislation -- increasing the visas to 5,000 -- and its adoption by Congress definitely are positive steps. It is now up to the administration to implement the legislation and ensure it devotes the resources needed for it. Refugees International and other advocacy groups will continue watching. Congress too is watching, and the administration is obliged by law to report to Congress on its progress with the implementation.

These Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), created for Iraqi former employees of the U.S. in Iraq, are different from the refugee resettlement program, which is committed to admit 12,000 refugees referred through the UNHCR channels.


Mountain View, Calif.: With the situation now supposedly calming down a bit in Iraq, is there a chance that some of the refugees can start going back home?

Kristele Younes: According to the UNHCR, the conditions in Iraq absolutely are not conducive to return for the moment. This position is supported by the U.S. State Department. Refugees International strongly believes that return should not be encouraged until Iraqis can go home of their own free will, in safety and dignity.

Obviously, we all hope that Iraqis will be able to return one day, but those who have returned in the past few months -- forced to do so because they no longer could survive in exile -- mostly have been unable to return to their homes; 70 percent became internally displaced. Some were attacked or killed. In these conditions, return is not only dangerous for the displaced, it also adds to the potential for increased instability and violence.


Asheville, N.C.: Reps. Waters, Lee and Woolsey have written a bill called Recovery and Stability of Iraq Act of 2008 (Introduced in House) or HR 5488. Do you think this will be helpful, if passed? What else can U.S. politicians and U.S. citizens do to help out in this overwhelming humanitarian disaster?

Kristele Younes: We believe the bill would be helpful, because it provides for the creation of a humanitarian coordinator position for Iraq and the region. Since the beginning of its work on Iraq, Refugees International has been calling for U.S. senior leadership on humanitarian issues, and we strongly support Congress's efforts in that sense.

We work closely with several representatives and senators on this issue, and hope to see other pieces of legislation introduced in the near future. We strongly encourage you to follow our work on our Web site, and write or call your congressional representatives to pressure their support to relevant legislation.

It is essential the American public engages on this issue. As this is an electoral year, Americans need to ask all candidates to come up with a plan to deal with the humanitarian crisis. This is a bipartisan issue, and should concern us all. We need to increase assistance to the U.N. and to the region, increase resettlement numbers, increase U.S. engagement in the Middle East, and work on ensuring that whatever military course the U.S. takes in Iraq, it will consider the humanitarian consequences and ensure that civilians will be protected against further violence.


bnichols6: It is ridiculous to allow Iraqi translators to come to the U.S. while our troops are still fighting. They should be in Iraq supporting the war effort.

Kristele Younes: Dead translators will not be helpful to the American efforts in Iraq. The Kennedy legislation seeks to protect translators and others who have worked with the U.S. and are now in danger of losing their lives. Those fleeing have been targeted directly, and are in immediate need of protection.


pennv: Why is the U.S. the nation that needs to take care of all these people? The Iraq war was an international effort, and just because many nations have withdrawn their support doesn't mean that they do not have financial responsibilities here as well. ... I also believe that if they are able to return, they should. Their country is going to need them now to rebuild and help to sustain their government, if that is what the country really wishes to do. The U.S. has given enough in terms of lives, money and effort to try to help Iraq -- now they need to help themselves!

Kristele Younes: The International Community as a whole needs to respond to the needs of displaced Iraqis, because a massive humanitarian crisis is everyone's business. However, until the U.S. shows significant leadership in responding to the situation, other countries won't. The U.S., because of its role in the 2003 invasion and because of its important presence in Iraq and its interests in the region, has a particular role to play. It needs to deal with all the consequences of the war -- the good ones and the bad.

As for Iraqi refugees being needed to rebuild their country -- you are absolutely right. When the time comes for them to return in safety and dignity, they will. However, until they are able to go home, they need to be provided for.


Kristele Younes: Thank you all for your questions -- it was a pleasure for me to be here.

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